Riding off into the sunset

Father Time finally catches up with the Real McCoy ferry

The oldest Caltrans-owned vehicle still in operation, the Real McCoy ferry has crisscrossed Cache Slough continuously since September 6, 1945.

The oldest Caltrans-owned vehicle still in operation, the Real McCoy ferry has crisscrossed Cache Slough continuously since September 6, 1945.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

The Real McCoy ferry has a way of surprising city people who drive through the Sacramento River Delta. Less than a mile out of Rio Vista, Highway 84 unexpectedly deposits cars at the water’s edge, and there it is. Today, it happens to the driver of a blue pickup, whose initial reaction is to ask, “How much is it to ride this thing?”

Brent McKarley, the deckhand, tells him it’s free, and waves him up the ramp to the corrugated metal deck. Sensing no worry in the driver’s giddy response (“Really? Cool!”), McKarley doesn’t follow him to the front. “If they’re nervous, then you want to be up there and kind of baby-sit ’em,” McKarley tells me. “Some people have requested to put on a life jacket. We accommodate that.”

At the press of a button, hydraulic lifts raise the ramp into an upright position. Up in the pilot house, Captain Roger Broom shifts the idling diesel engines into gear and we’re off. On this calm, sunny Thursday, the quarter-mile crossing of Cache Slough, over to Ryer Island’s western shore, takes three minutes.

The “two-headed” vessel doesn’t turn around for the return trip to Rio Vista. Broom simply takes a seat at a duplicate set of controls at the other end of the pilot house while McKarley operates an identical boarding ramp at the opposite end of the deck. This time, the passengers are island residents who ride the ferry daily, so Broom knows they expect a smooth voyage. “If you happen to bump the beach or the fendering and they spill some coffee, boy they’ll turn around and give you the look. They’re quick to forget the thousand perfect crossings that you give them.”

Depending on the time of year, Broom and McKarley will repeat this crossing between 50 and 80 times during their 12-hour shift, stopping only for a 20-minute break and the rare moment when nobody is waiting on either shore. “In the ferry-boat business they would refer to this as an on-demand ferry,” explains Broom. “We see somebody pull up, and we get the boat under way as promptly as we can and go over and pick them up. The boat is an actual functioning part of state Route 84, so we try to keep it moving just like we would a state highway.”

Broom has been doing this for 11 years, McKarley for 22. Impressive tenures, but nothing compared to that of the vessel itself, which has been crisscrossing Cache Slough round-the-clock since September 6, 1945. The Real McCoy—equipment number 0001—is the oldest Caltrans-owned vehicle still in operation. A former state Public Works director predicted it would be replaced by a bridge in 20 years. That was in 1968. Instead, it has provided 62 years of nonstop service in “all types of weather, come rain, shine, fog, sleet,” says Broom, giving the old postal creed a maritime twist. It has hauled just about everything that fits on its 65-by-30 foot deck without exceeding its 50,000 pound capacity, including motor coaches, farm vehicles, even helicopters on trailers.

But Father Time finally is catching up with the Real McCoy, and Caltrans is getting ready to replace it. “It’s time,” Broom explains when asked why. “It’s met its service life. We need to update the boat with better, cleaner power plants. Vehicles are getting bigger. We need to modernize our electronics so we can keep track of vessels safely in the fog.”

“Just worn out,” adds McKarley. The previous day, they had to replace a starter, and one day last summer repairs to a propeller drive shut down service for nine hours. Parts keep “wearing out, breaking down, inconveniencing the public,” he says.

It’s hard to imagine how relevant an old-fashioned ferry in a hidden corner of the state can be until you ride it for a couple of hours. At one point, McKarley asks rhetorically, “Since you’ve been here, have we stopped?”

Turns out this ferry is a lifeline for the island’s farming families, who grow a variety of crops, including tomatoes, grapes, pears, wheat, corn, alfalfa and safflower. Neil Hamilton makes the daily 10-mile trip from his Rio Vista home to his island farmland in 20 minutes. Detouring around the island to the town of Courtland, where a bridge connects to Ryer’s north side, takes an hour.

Broom takes the ferry’s role very seriously. “We have 109 mailboxes on board Ryer Island, and it’s home to a lot of folks that actually commute to other places and use the ferryboat.” The garbage truck (“came across this morning at 5 o’clock”), the school bus (“today it had 47 passengers on board”), fire engines and ambulances depend on it every day.

It was Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who, in 2006, first asked Caltrans to replace the Real McCoy with a larger, more modern vessel. She had learned of its condition from former Rio Vista Mayor Marci Coglianese. By then, Wolk—who discovered the Real McCoy by accident on a family trip—was a strong advocate for the ferry, calling it “the most expedient path for local emergency medical services, fire and the sheriff department,” in a press release dated March 30 of that year.

Prior to her election in 2002, however, she didn’t realize how critical it was to Delta life. That all changed the following year, when Coglianese appealed to her for help in getting Caltrans to exempt the ferry from a statewide hiring freeze that had prompted the agency to shut it down between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. At Wolk’s request, Caltrans restored the ferry’s 24-hour service.

The Department of General Services, which oversees procurement contracts for state agencies, began advertising for bids for a new ferry on June 11, 2006. There was only one bidder, however, whose asking price far exceeded the $2.9 million Caltrans was expecting, according to information provided by Wolk’s office. To attract multiple bids—as well as lower-priced ones—Caltrans will offer progressive pay estimates (installment payments) when it advertises a new round of bids on its own later this year, according to agency spokesman Keith Wayne.

Given the timetables for bidding and construction (which can take a year), Wayne figures the new vessel can be in place by late 2009. It will be able to haul “all legal loads,” he said, including the tractor-trailers and combination vehicles that are too big for the Real McCoy.

Private ferries began operating in the Delta in the late 1800s. The California Highway Commission, Caltrans’s predecessor, took them over in the mid-1920s. The Real McCoy and J-Mack—which links the east side of Ryer Island to Grand Island and Highway 160—are California’s only remaining state-operated ferries, but there have been others. A ferry system for the Bay Area began in 1847, and its last route operated until 1962, when the Benicia-Martinez Bridge opened.

The Real McCoy (named for George T. McCoy, a former state highway engineer), began its life by pulling itself along a fixed underwater cable. With the opening of the Sacramento River Deep Water Ship Channel in 1963, the cable was removed to accommodate deep-draft ships. The ferry then got outfitted with two diesel engines and side propellers to become the free-running boat it is today. (The J-Mack, a cable ferry with a one-person crew, has operated since 1969. Also named for a former highway engineer, J.C. Womack, its equipment number is 0002.)

A reporter once wrote that the Real McCoy resembles a raft Huck Finn designed. Yet it navigates a modern shipping channel that has been getting much busier since the Port of Oakland became involved in managing the Port of Sacramento. “I have seen as many as three [freighters] downbound from the Port of Sacramento in a 12-hour watch,” says Broom. Previously, he saw “maybe one every other week.” California’s push to rebuild levees also has brought more tugs and barges: Broom points to where they’ve been depositing new rock on the island’s banks. Then there are all the recreational boats and the occasional wayward whales. To announce his presence in all this traffic, Broom often pierces the serene Delta air with the ferry’s electronic whistle. For foggy weather, when the whistle won’t do, he blasts away with a bone-rattling air horn. Huck never had anything like that.

When the end of the line finally comes for the Real McCoy, don’t expect Broom to go out with the ship. He plans on piloting the new vessel, too. The scenery around him beats the view he’d get from any office.

“I’ve seen some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets in my entire life from right here in the pilot house. Late fall, with the fog, and the sun coming up over the horizon, all the beautiful colors—where else?” he asks. “I once heard that if a person has a job they like, they’ll never work another day in their life, and that’s kind of what I’ve got going on here.”

McKarley has a particular affinity for the nighttime wildlife. “We’ve got beaver, muskrats, mink, opossums, skunks, raccoons. It’s kind of funny to watch the young ones play and wrestle in the middle of the night.”

Does that mean he’ll stay on the job for the new vessel, too?

“Oh yeah, they can’t get rid of me that quick.”

As for what will become of the Real McCoy, Broom has given some thought to that.

“I really hope that she gets a good home. I’d like to see the boat ultimately end up at the railway museum in Sacramento.”

And if the museum doesn’t want it?

“If I had my druthers, I’d doll her all up, put her up on the beach and maybe put a vehicle on board from all the periods of time that it served the great state of California and the citizens of the state.”